Carbohydrate loading (carbo-loading) is a term we have all heard. It’s a way of fuelling up before an event with the aim of having more energy on tap. But how does it work and what is the best strategy? By developing a good understanding of how to carbo-load properly you too can reap the seemingly elusive performance benefits.
Shorter events, sprints and power sports won’t benefit from carb-loading, as the energy demands will be met by your body’s existing energy stores. However, most aspects of mountain biking and cycling in general will benefit. With any form of moderate to high intensity activity that goes for longer than 1.5 hours, optimum fuelling can deliver a 2-3% performance improvement. This could make you two or three minutes faster over a two hour ride and you stand to gain quite a bit more if you’re doing a longer event—it’s an easy way of gaining speed and beating your mates!
Glycogen is Key
The main aim of carbo-loading is to bolster your body’s glycogen levels—this is glucose that’s stored in the muscles and liver. When exercising you’ll tap into this readily available energy source and be able to hold a faster pace for longer. Maximising the capacity of the body’s glycogen stores is the cornerstone of carbo-loading.
Effective carbo-loading involves a two-pronged approach. First up, tapering your training in the days before an event provides a passive loading effect. By riding less you’ll hold onto your existing stores and retain more glycogen in your muscles and liver.
Secondly, the tapering effect is augmented by increasing your dietary carbohydrate intake in the days prior to an event. Ideally, dietary carb-loading should be paired with a tapering in training, although this isn’t really feasible if you’re doing events on a weekly basis.
Depending on the individual, the best timing for carbo-loading is anywhere between 24 to 72 hours before an event. The ideal amount of carbohydrate is upwards of 10-12g carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. That is a lot of food!
When you are training, the normal requirement would be 7-10g of carbs per kilogram per day. I would train on about 8g carb/kg/day and then go up to 10g-plus of carbs per kilogram for my carbo-loading. This equated to over 600g carbohydrate each day for the two days leading up to my event.
Eating this much carbohydrate can leave you feeling a bit lethargic or even bloated. This can be a deterrent to carbo-loading but the feeling is only temporary and it’s absolutely normal. It comes about due to the extra water that is retained with each gram of stored glucose. Personally I don’t enjoy the feeling but I’d still ‘get it in’, and come race day, I’d feel like a wound-up spring uncoiling with great force. Carbo-load successfully and you’ll want to jump out of your skin and go like a racehorse!
Carbo-loading Tips & Warnings
- Utilise sports drinks as a way to pre-hydrate in conjunction with an easy way to get in the extra carb grams.
- If using sports drinks, be aware the extra fluid can cause a mild headache.
- High-fibre or bulky foods such as heavy grains, large amounts of fibrous vegetables, beans, or excessive amounts of fruits can hinder your ability to consume enough carbohydrate. They are quite filling and have a bulking-effect in the gut, so try to limit these.
- Contrary to what we normally should be eating in a healthy, high fibre diet, carb-loading is the time when it is okay to add low-fat sugary foods and drinks.
- Choose foods that are easily tolerated by the stomach, moderately processed and lower in fat.
- Don’t use carb-loading as an excuse to pig-out on fatty foods, takeaways, chips, greasy pizzas or rich baking. These foods are too high in fat and will displace the all-important carb-rich foods you should be eating.
- For meat-eaters, keep portions small and choose lighter options like chicken, fish or eggs. Avoid red meat, fatty sausages and so on.
Bananas and/or tinned fruit
Well-cooked rolled oats or porridge with brown sugar and dates
Wholemeal toast (vs. wholegrain) with natural peanut butter and generous amounts of honey or jam
Processed breakfast cereal (i.e. Nutri-Grain, Weetbix)
Low-fat milk or rice milk
Coffee with honey
Pasta with tomato-based sauce
Rice, couscous or potato dishes
Low-fat pizza – veggie is a good option
Light salad and a few veggies
Low-fat sweet biscuits
Em’s Power Cookies
Cinnamon rolls or iced buns
Crackers and hummus
Sandwiches or filled rolls
This menu provides an idea of the carbohydrate content of different foods and how much is actually required for an effective carb-load.
It is a good idea to track your carbohydrate intake in grams during your normal training days, as this will help you gain a better understanding of exactly how much you eat on a regular basis. Then when it comes time to load up, increase your intake accordingly which usually equates to about an additional 2g per kilogram more than your normal intake.
If reading labels and evaluating carbohydrate grams doesn’t appeal to you, another method is to simply increase your portions of carbohydrate foods by 20-30% as well as following some of my ‘Carbo-loading Tips’ when implementing your own loading regimen.
Carbo-loading can be a fun time to relax and really enjoy eating to your heart’s content, then reap that extra 2-3% performance benefit that a good carb-loading can provide.